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Warner Bros. // R // October 15, 2002
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Phillip Duncan | posted October 12, 2002 | E-mail the Author
For a follow up film to his surprise sophomore hit Memento, director Christopher Nolan went with an unlikely route by choosing to helm Warner Brothers remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia. Using the same style that made Memento such a memorable film, Nolan has created a superbly crafted film that is as much a re-imagining, as it is a remake.

Al Pacino is Los Angeles detective Will Dormer. He and his partner Hap are summoned to a small town in Alaska to aid in the investigation into the murder of a small girl. In the middle of an internal affairs investigation, this seems to come at an opportune time. Seemingly exhausted from the trip and current situation, things only become worse as Dormer attempts to adjust to the constant daylight in the northern town of Nightmute, Alaska.

When Dormer accidentally shoots his partner, instead of telling the truth he uses a convenient excuse and blames the shooting on Walter Finch (Robin Williams). Finch is the main suspect in murder case and only he knows the truth about who killed Hap. Suffering from exhaustion and the thought of the internal affairs investigation, the added weight of blackmail coming from Finch is enough to push Dormer past the breaking point.

Dormer is trapped in a game he has setup and Finch relishes the opportunity. Knowing that if he arrests Finch, his secret will be revealed, Dormer is left wondering what to do. All the while the local sheriff, played by Hillary Swank, closes in on both men and the secrets they hide.

Nolan's decision to follow Memento with this film comes as a blessing to all involved. The interesting thing about this film and the one device that makes it unique are the exact same issues that make it so interesting. The tension in the film doesn't come from a victim in peril or a family member that has been kidnapped. It comes from within Pacino, as exorcised by Williams. Both actors are at the top of the game here and play off each other wonderfully.

You can sense the pressure and tension Dormer is under from looking at Pacino's face. The weariness and guilt is written on the lines in his face and bags under his eyes. He's been pushed to the limits of physical exhaustion by the change in sleep and his internal dilemma has stretched his subconscious to the same extreme.

Williams also puts in a fine performance as Water Finch. Seemingly ahead of Dormer all the time because of his background as a crime writer, Williams portrays Finch as an everyday person. The beauty in this, as Williams mentions in the DVD interview, is that this is the character that no one suspects. He's not played as an on-screen villain like Hannibal Lecter or many other cinema killers. Finch comes across, and rightly so, as the unassuming man from a little town that when discovered his neighbors would say, "he always seemed so normal," or some other similar remark.

Despite the fine performance and sublime direction by Nolan, the film is not perfect. Hollywood seems to have been sitting on the middle of the fence regarding the direction of the film. It's half standard chase thriller and half mental thriller. The detail in which the mental game is played only leaves the physical aspects lacking. They are well done, but nothing inventive or new. As it is, Insomnia stands as an incredible remake of an already well received film that manages to stand on its own feet and make a unique and lasting impression due to a good script, incredible performances and stylistically unique directing.

Video: Warner has done a good job on the transfer. Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this print looks clean and crisp. There was a lot of chance for artifact and grain to pop up in many scenes, like the fog, but it has been kept to a minimum. The slightly washed and worn feel of the film is captured nicely with nothing looking too bright or clean.

Audio: Another fine job with no complaints, Warner delivered a bright soundtrack transfer as well. The Dolby Digital 5.1 gets a few workouts in the action scenes but remains subtle through most of the film. Vocals are leveled nicely and there are no real complaints. A French 5.1 surround track is included as well.

Extras: After years of reviewing DVDs and a collection that numbers in the hundreds, this disc has one of my favorite extras ever. The disc has two commentaries. One features Hillary Swank, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Dody Dorn, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and screenwriter Hillary Seitz. In this commentary, the group was recorded separately and edited together. Rarely do the comment on the same scenes. The best information comes from Seitz and Pfister as the really reveal interesting moments about the making and writing of the film.

So what's the best extra? Director Chris Nolan has done an interesting commentary. Bypassing such gimmicks like animated or telestrated commentaries, Nolan instead comments on a reedited version of the film. Set in order of filming, it reveals the intricacies involved in making such a large film. Scenes are out of order and shooting schedules are easy to mentally map out. It provides an excellent look at what it takes to make a film and make it look the same from day to day over what could be a period of months.

Four featurette and documentaries are included as well:
Eyes Wide Open is a short and interesting look into the real world of insomnia and those who suffer from it. Barely scratching the surface, it left me wondering more about the condition.
Day for Night is the standard making of documentary and shows mostly behind the scenes information. The actors and director are interviewed and each reveal details as to why they chose the project and what it was like working with each other. It's very standard as documentaries go.
180 Degrees is a beautiful filmed conversation between Nolan and Pacino. Nolan holds his own against Pacino's age and experience and this is another unique piece on the DVD. Actor and director go beyond the relationship and discuss more than the making of Insomnia and delve into their influences and the friendship made while filming. More of these would be a great feature on future releases.
In The Fog is the final documentary on the disc and it deals with the production design and cinematography. More in-depth and visually oriented than what Nolan and others discuss in the commentaries, it's the most interesting of the other three.

Additional scenes are included and like most, do little for the film. Photo galleries, trailers, cast highlights and DVD-ROM content is included as well. Overall, Warner has done an amazing job on the disc as far as extras go. I hope the re-edited version and commentary is something that appears on future discs from and from other studios as well.

Overall: Combine excellent talent, a great script, an innovative director, and a well planned DVD and you get one of the more interesting film DVD combos of the year. The combination of Nolan's direction and the inventive commentary place this disc on the top of October's releases. It's worth the price for the commentary alone and no aspiring filmmaker or interested cinephile should pass it up.

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Highly Recommended

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